Rethinking Summer Break

School’s out for summer! Now what? The euphoria around getting out of school can quickly give way to boredom and frustration about having nothing to do.

As parents often seek opportunities to entertain their children for the next six to eight weeks, UNC Health Care pediatrician Ty Bristol, MD, MPH, offers these tips for how to use summer break to positively affect your child’s health down the road.

Connect to Protect

Children and teenagers who have good connections to family, friends, teachers, sports teams, activities or clubs are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as abusing alcohol and risky sexual activity, Dr. Bristol says.

“Health is not just your heart, lungs, skin or acne. A healthy child or teenager is not just physically healthy but they’re spiritually, emotionally, socially, culturally healthy as well,” Dr. Bristol says. “And summer break is the perfect time to check in and make sure your children are staying connected to others.”

Spend time as a family hiking or watching movies. Encourage your child to make plans with friends or engage in off-season training for their favorite sport with teammates. Send them to spend a few weeks with relatives.

This face-to-face “real world” contact is especially important in a society so dominated by screens and virtual interactions.

Help Others

Even from a young age, children who help others learn that other people view the world differently and have different options and resources, Dr. Bristol says.

“Volunteering has a benefit because you’re helping somebody beyond yourself. That’s important and protective in terms of how children and teenagers think of themselves, their confidence and their sense of purpose,” Dr. Bristol says. “And if they have a good sense of self, that can help them avoid peer pressure to engage in high-risk behaviors.”

There are endless opportunities for kids to serve in the community. Sign up your child to volunteer to sort clothes at a shelter or participate in a litter cleanup. Contact your local food bank or retirement community and ask about opportunities to help. Younger children can make cards and spend time with elderly neighbors.

For older teens, Dr. Bristol recommends using the summer to get experience related to their career aspirations. For example, if your child wants to pursue a career in health care, perhaps as a doctor or nurse, call your pediatrician or local hospital to find volunteer opportunities there.

“Those organizations are usually very excited to have young learners,” Dr. Bristol says.

Step Outside Your Box

Summer is a great time to tackle goals and learn a new skill. It’s a chance to pursue something your child couldn’t do while he or she was in school, Dr. Bristol says.

Maybe this is the summer your child masters a difficult piano piece, learns the backstroke or gets her license. Visit the museum in your hometown or attend a play in the park. Attend a cultural festival in town.

Dr. Bristol encourages parents to introduce their children to new experiences and people over the break.

“I challenge parents to expose their children to different things, different ethnic groups, different cultures and different foods,” he says. “And we don’t always have to fly to Italy or fly to China do that.”

Many activities are free or low-cost.

Get a Job

Dr. Bristol encourages older teenagers to get a job over the summer.

“There is a lot of value in having responsibility, earning money and being responsible for your earnings,” Dr. Bristol says. Besides the life lessons of being on time, answering to a boss and getting along with coworkers, a job gives a teenager the chance to positively affect the family’s finances.

Think Long-Term

Don’t worry about doing all of these tips; focus on small steps that will benefit your kids based on their interests and personalities.

“Try to tailor the summer to your specific children. It doesn’t have to be cookie-cutter,” Dr. Bristol says. “Whatever you plan, think through how what your child does this summer will impact him when he’s 30.”

Talk to your pediatrician about what summer activities may benefit your child. If you do not have a pediatrician, find one near you.]